Academic journal article Criticism

Antitheatricality and Irrationality: An Alternative View

Academic journal article Criticism

Antitheatricality and Irrationality: An Alternative View

Article excerpt

Over the last three decades, antitheatrical authors like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes, and William Prynne have become increasingly visible in the literary and cultural studies of the early modern period. Even so, the tendency has been to treat these authors as ideological extremists: reactionary hacks whose opposition to stage plays originates in outrageous ideas of the self, impossible notions of right and wrong, and bizarre beliefs about humanity's susceptibility to external suggestion. This characterization can be traced back to several of the pioneering studies in the field, including Jonas Barish's The Antitheatrical Prejudice (1985) and Laura Levine's Men in Womens Clothing (1994), each of which takes the irrationality of the antitheatricalists as a starting point, as well as a structuring assumption. Both of these books have shaped our critical discourse: virtually everyone who has written about antitheatricalism in recent years has been influenced by and is indebted to the readings that these books present.1 Nevertheless, I believe that these groundbreaking studies plowed the field in such a way as to distort some of its contours. In the present essay, I offer a careful response in hopes of giving us a better sense of the lay of the land.

While it might seem misguided or querulous of me to critique these works in close detail, it is not my intent to deny or disparage their important contributions to the discipline. Indeed, it is precisely because these books have been so influential that a response is worthwhile. My aim in reviewing their claims is to cast light on our collective tendency to misconstrue the anti theatricalists' meaning, which in turn keeps us from appreciating what early modern antitheatrical debates are all about. It is simply not the case that the anti theatricalists attack the stage because they have outlandish beliefs about the self, while the apologists defend it because they have well-considered ones. In point of fact, the conceptualization of human nature that informs the antitheatrical tracts is recognizably Protestant and culturally dominant in early modern England. Nevertheless, we often ignore this orthodoxy to emphasize instead what seems illogical or eccentric. In doing so, we oversimplify a complex sociocultural situation and turn antitheatrical discourse into a cartoonish version of itself. In what follows, I seek to paint a more telling portrait by showing how this assumption of irrationality has colored our criticism, causing us to miss many of the qualifications, clarifications, and theorizations that make antitheatrical writings more compelling than we give them credit for being. The antitheatricalists are not as senseless as we have supposed, and their writings can give us real insight into the acute moral and ethical problems posed by playmaking in early modern England, as well as an ampler sense of the operation, influence, and significance of the professional stage.

As one of the seminal studies in the field, Barish's The Antitheatrical Prejudice is remarkable in a number of ways. Its scope is impressive (ranging from antiquity to modernity), and its erudition is simply astounding. Nevertheless, the material that Barish chooses to present and the manner in which he does so leave little doubt that we are meant to see the antitheatricalists as incoherent and illogical. In the case of the early modern moment, this is done by paying disproportionate attention to William Prynne, the most ardent of all the English polemicists. Though Barish readily admits that Prynne is an exceptional figure-not so much an example of antitheatrical thought as a grotesque caricature of it-he nevertheless turns to Prynne again and again to represent the antitheatrical position. Indeed, the chapter in Barish's book that focuses on the early modern English controversy ("Puritans and Proteans") quotes Prynne four times as frequently as any other author.2

This quotational bias makes for interesting reading (since Prynne's tone and style are nothing if not striking), but it ultimately encourages us to think of the whole of antitheatrical ideology in terms of Prynne's particular intemperance, as if the extreme were the mean. …

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